In May 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking a second mandate from the people of India, gave one of his rare press interviews to Raj Kamal Jha and Ravish Tiwari of The Indian Express. At one point, he was asked whether he brooked dissent, and if he had ever been overruled in cabinet or party meetings.
“…[F]ind out the average time of cabinet meetings during the Manmohan Singh government. The average time was 20 minutes. The average time of my cabinet meetings is three hours. What do you think happens over that time? There have been several cabinet proposals which have gone back. Several have been referred to a temporary GoM (group of ministers). Additionally, I have done meetings of my entire council of ministers where everyone is invited to speak and deliberate. Presentations are made, but these are not for media.”
Indian Express: But what do we get as news?
“That is your problem. I am not undemocratic. I have met 250 people in Delhi for three hours each of freewheeling discussions. I believe that the thinking of the government as well as the thinking of the people in media should be transparent. Whether news gets published is not the only thing in a democracy.”
India’s Prime Minister was talking here of changing the press and the government. Perhaps the Finance Ministry’s order denying free access to journalists was an early indication of what the PM meant. “Whether news gets published is not the only thing in a democracy.” It surprised me that even The Indian Express seemed to miss the significance of this line which should, really, have been a banner headline. Perhaps such oversight is not unusual.
Meanwhile, the Right to Information Act, which was one of the great achievements of our civil society, has been amended to bring the hitherto independent Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners – both at the centre and in the states – under the direct control of the central government. No matter. Whether people get the information they want or not is not the only thing in a democracy.
The Lok Sabha has passed amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act that give authorities the power to declare any individual a “terrorist.” The original Act already had many provisions to deal with people linked to terrorist organisations, even if all they could be accused of was possessing literature that might be deemed to be sympathetic to banned organisations. What, then, is the purpose of the amended law championed by the new Home Minister, Amit Shah, especially if a
person branded as a terrorist won’t necessarily be convicted or imprisoned?
Manu Sebastian, writing on LiveLaw.in gives us a clue: “An official designation as a terrorist will be akin to “civil death” for a person’; so just about anyone can be at risk of “social boycott, expulsion from job, hounding by media” and ‘can be thrown to the “mob” to suffer extra-judicial punishment.” Well, this too should not matter. Whether individuals can live, speak, and think freely and without fear is not the only thing in a democracy.
Back in 1949, George Orwell wrote his great novel 1984, a vision of the future. I read it in 2019. I come from the same district he was born in – Champaran. But I feel an even greater affinity with him in 2019 because every plot and detail of his novel is a precise reflection of the world we inhabit today. There’s a character in the novel whose job is to erase old phrases and slogans from every printed thing. Exactly as many contexts and memories associated with Nehru and Gandhi are being erased in our country.
In the novel, there are telescreens everywhere; means by which Big Brother keeps an eye on ordinary citizens. News is broadcast simultaneously from these same screens. This, too is familiar. Our phones and screens are tools of control in ways still unimaginable for many of us. There are at least a few hundred TV channels, all with the same announcements, the same news. This system of supposed news works non-stop to convert citizens into robots.
The Prime Minister may believe that the matter of whether or not news is published is of no great consequence, but information and its sanctity are central to the idea of a democracy. People may well agree with the PM, but when they are confronted by their own doubts and concerns and look for answers and accountability, they wish for exactly the kind of press that a few of us journalists want to reclaim.
It was never perfect. But now it isn’t even a shadow of what it was or could have been. This seems all right to many of us; no great tragedy. But when you turn to the press because your pension has been delayed, or your children’s school fees are exorbitant, or you are personally a victim of injustice, you find yourself lamenting that the media has sold out.
The shadow of government falls in the newsrooms of TV channels and newspapers. It has been some years since they stopped interrogating the government and holding it accountable. Some of us may still laugh at the kind of questions that are put to our Prime Minister. But a large segment of our population has already begun to see these as the right kind of questions to ask: How do you eat a mango? Do you keep a wallet? What gives you the temperament of a fakir? These were the questions he was asked by a film star in an interview telecast in the middle of the 2019 election campaign in a country with a thousand inequalities to address and a million aspirations to honour and help fulfil.
“How do you eat a mango?” This was accepted as journalism. There was no popular outrage. So it isn’t surprising that when journalists are denied access to a government ministry, when citizens’ right to information is effectively taken away and a law to make them live in perpetual fear is passed, there are no cries of protest.
Do a simple exercise if you still need to be convinced. Look at the Twitter handles of the most popular news anchors of Indian television and editors with fancy designations. Look at the titles of their shows and editorials. You won’t find a single question asked of the government for months together. But every morning and evening they find new virtues in government policies, for which they credit and congratulate the Prime Minister.
After a few days, the PM begins to follow these anchors and editors on Twitter, and they make a great show of this as evidence of their professional achievement. This isn’t all. Other journalists then begin
to tweet the PM, pointing out that he hasn’t followed them despite similar obedience. So government and media share “likes” and “follows.” It’s the festive exchange of gifts and candy in our brave new world.
The desire to be followed on Twitter by our popular and all-powerful PM is the greatest professional wish of the stars of Indian journalism. It would be instructive to see what kind of reporting these journalists have done since 2014: What is their record in social activism, or the defence of democracy, or ground-breaking reportage? What exactly is it about their reporting and analysis that makes the PM follow them? But then, our PM also follows abusive trolls, so this isn’t surprising. These anchors and editors are trolls, too. They attack and dare the opposition in their programmes. They hunt liberals every evening. They speak the language of hoodlums and bullies.
In newsrooms, no one asks any longer why there is no news in what is put out on the airwaves and in print. The system that relied on reporters has been decimated. Only editors survive. Senior group editor, group editor, senior managing editor, managing editor, national editor, political editor, associate editor. And many other kinds of editors. Now, how can an editor ask another editor, “Where’s the news? Why haven’t you given us any news for so long?” All that the newsrooms of scores of channels do is to decide the topics of debates.
Many citizens have come to believe this is journalism. And so they say, “There’s been an incident in
our neighbourhood, can you arrange a debate about it?” They don’t ask for the incident to be covered and reported. People aren’t troubled by this. Till the time that they are affected personally, and then they begin to look for the absent reporter.
In July 2019, there were strikes in several railway zones. Railway workers joined in the thousands. When the media did not cover the strikes, these workers began to circulate WhatsApp messages of their protests. All the messages said that the media has been bought over. Up until then these very workers were regular and uncritical consumers of anything put out by the same media. Now, when their public protest was blanked out, they began to see that the media had sold out. The truth is, India’s mainstream media has reduced the general public to such a state that they end up making
videos of their own tragedies and watching these themselves.
There was a time when journalists would say that they chose the profession because they did not want just a nine-to-five job. But that is exactly what it has become; in fact, much worse, for it lacks even the rigour and integrity of an honestly done nine-to-five job. Courage and ethics are being banished from the newsroom. Journalists who still have faith in their profession and try to hold on to the old ideals of journalism are being sacked. Their financial security is endangered. If a couple of
newspapers or channels somehow find the courage to attempt independent news, the government punishes them by withholding advertisements.
It is interesting that even papers that have been punished by the government in this manner don’t report the fact. We get the news of their intimidation and taming from the few websites that have emerged as honourable alternatives to the mainstream media. But for these sites, we would not have known of the extraordinary situation when a knife is drawn across someone’s neck, like a bow across strings, and he produces music in praise of his assassin.
Was the popular verdict of the 2019 elections also a verdict against the demands for free and fair journalism? There’s no conclusive answer to this question yet. But it does appear that the Indian people – certainly a large section of them – did not attach much importance to freedom of the press. For this large section, it is a matter of little consequence that the media sells out or that journalism is dying.
In a democracy, governments cannot be judged by the standards of a media that has sold out to authority. But it is being done in India. Our democracy is being hollowed out by the nexus of politics, big business, and a compromised media.
Despite all this, I still believe that change will come. Freedom and impartiality of the press may be a dead issue in the corridors of power, but one day it will emerge as a matter of life and livelihood for the general public. For, as long as even a single person feels hunger, as long as anyone feels impelled to speak out, there will be the urge to know the truth. There’s dead silence today, but public consciousness will come awake tomorrow. And when it does, people will want to know how India can remain a great democracy if its media is a willing slave to authority and news anchors speak like hired thugs of the establishment.
Excerpted with permission from The Free Voice, Ravish Kumar, Speaking Tiger.